Is America a “Christian” nation?
If you ask this question to random people on the street, you are sure to receive a variety of answers.
This, however, is a very important question, because it determines how we think about religious liberty. In my previous article, we saw that the light of religious liberty is fading, and here’s one of the primary reasons: many of us are unforgivably illiterate when it comes to American history.
We cannot ignore this subject because it has great implications for some hot topics headlining our news reports today. For example, should we allow a judge to install a monument of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse? Is it acceptable to set up a manger scene display in the town square? How about praying before football games at public schools?
Many contemporary Americans believe that we should ban anything that hints of religion (well, Christianity anyway) because of our impermeable “wall of separation” between church and state (we’ll consider that in a future article).
If our nation does have Christian roots, why can’t we at least accept religious symbols and actions as a nod to our past? If, however, our nation does not have Christian roots, then we would be justified in rejecting these as the fringe ideals of a fanatical minority rather than an inextricable part of American society and law.
So, it’s time to rid ourselves of our inexcusable ignorance and determine if, in fact, the roots of America do extend deep into Christianity. Let’s begin with the Pilgrims.
The Separatist Pilgrims: “Advance the Christian Faith!”
The original settlers in America traversed the treacherous Atlantic for various reasons. While some arrived on the shores of the newly discovered continent with hopes of “striking it rich,” the Pilgrims did so for religious reasons. They had separated from the established Anglican Church in England, an act which invited immense persecution. Fearing for their lives, they relocated to Holland, where they faced the opposite problem. While the intolerance of England brought persecution, the excessive tolerance in Holland caused them to fear for the purity of their children. Finally, they decided to place their bets on settling in America, the unchartered land of hopes and dreams.
Before the displaced Pilgrims disembarked from their ship, the Mayflower, and set foot on the soil of their new home in Plymouth, they signed an agreement known as the Mayflower Compact. This document, which outlined the government they would attempt to establish, clearly stated their purpose for making the dangerous trip to America: they had come “for the glory of God” as well as for “advancement of the Christian faith.”
That does not sound very secular to me.
Were the Pilgrims seeking religious liberty? For themselves, yes, but not for others. They had finally escaped the religious persecution in England; why would they want to intermingle with those of other faiths?
You could argue that because the Pilgrims had no intention of pursuing absolute religious freedom for all, they were not proponents of religious liberty. That is true. They were not seeking religious liberty as we know it. They simply sought the freedom to worship in their Separatist fashion, far away from the domination of the Anglican Church. However, neither were they seeking a society devoid of religion. Rather, they envisioned a society built on, around, and for the Christian religion.
While many of us realize the dangers of constructing a society on one brand of religion, the point is that no one with even an elementary knowledge of history can honestly claim that Christianity plays an insignificant role in our past.
In our next article, we will look at the fascinating story of John Winthrop and his devoted band of Puritans. Their zeal for a religious society has been relatively unmatched throughout history.